A bevy of intensities – Ensemble Liaison with Wilma Smith

Chamber Music New Zealand 2011

HAYDN – Piano Trio in G Major “Gypsy Rondo”

BRAHMS – Clarinet Trio in A Minor Op.114

MESSIAEN – Quartet for the End of Time

Ensemble Liaison:

Timothy Young (piano) / Svetlana Bogosavljevic (‘cello) / David Griffiths (clarinet)

– with Wilma Smith (violin)

Town Hall, Wellington

Saturday 29th October 2011

Contrast was very much the going order for this concert, given by the Australian group Ensemble Liaison, with violinist Wilma Smith, in the Wellington Town Hall. The group made light of the rather over-generous acoustic and voluminous spaces of the venue, with some extremely focused and well-projected playing throughout the varied program. As well, the ear soon adjusted to the prevailing ambience, so that the sounds soon became as “normal” as at any concert.

One comes to expect certain levels of musicianship and technical proficiency from visiting artists, and the members of Ensemble Liaison delivered handsomely on all counts. Timothy Young’s piano-playing combined a soloist’s presence and focus with a chamber musician’s sensitivity throughout the evening. He was admirably partnered in all three works by ‘cellist Svetlana Bogosavljevic, sonorous and supple-toned, from the largely continuo-like underpinnings of the Haydn Trio to the fractured intensities of Messiaen’s work. And clarinettist David Griffiths charmed us at first with his expressive sensitivities in Brahms, before pinning back our ears with playing of searing surety in the Messiaen Quartet.

Joining them for this series of performances in New Zealand was Wilma Smith, well-known here for her work as concertmaster with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, and as leader and a founding member of the New Zealand String Quartet. She brought what a friend of mine described at the interval as “warmth and clarity” to the music, as well as an experienced chamber musician’s sensibility to the interactions with her colleagues.

Before the concert began Chamber Music New Zealand boss Euan Murdoch welcomed the audience and highlighted some aspects of next year’s programme, making particular reference to the visit by illustrious Italian ensemble I Musici, as well as that by the equally renowned Takács Quartet. A further announcement came from Wilma Smith, telling us of her wish to dedicate the concert to the memory of a recently deceased former colleague of hers from the NZSO, veteran trumpeter Gil Evans.

Haydn’s well-known G Major Piano Trio, named “Gypsy Rondo” on account of its exotically-rhythmed finale, enabled musicians and audience to”get the pitch of the hall”, the resonances bringing out Haydn’s delightful “al fresco” echoes of the forest and the hunt throughout the first movement’s variations – I wanted the opening major-key sequence repeated, so felicitous was the playing and the sense of delightful rapport between the musicians. Though the ‘cello had practically nothing thematic to do throughout, Svetlana Bogosavljevic’s playing warmed the harmonies beautifully, enabling the violin to sing and the piano to sparkle with even more sweetness and élan. Only in parts of the finale did I feel the acoustic robbed the playing of some of its finesse of detail – some of the rapidly moving figurations were but a blur, though the skin-and-hair “gypsy” sequences came across with plenty of temperament, the whole delightfully paprika-flavoured.

From rustic exuberance we moved to a more autumnal mood with Brahms’s Op.114 Clarinet Trio, the first of several works written for the famed clarinettist Richard Mühlefeld, whom the composer had heard play in the Meiningen Orchestra. David Griffiths introduced the work, making reference to Mühlefeld and his skills, and to the beauties of these later works. On the showing of his subsequent playing in the Trio I would have been happy to have heard Griffiths play all of them, including the two sonatas, in a single concert – perhaps another time! What impressed me was the beautiful transparency of his tone, the playing catching the music’s “wind-blown” quality in a number of places. With Svetlana Bogosavljevic’s dulcet ‘cello tones leading the way into many of the melodic contourings, the music’s emotive impulse was constantly maintained, Timothy Young’s piano-playing contributing a nice sense of fantastical suggestion to the proceedings.

The Adagio here delivered a beautifully-voiced dialogue between clarinet and ‘cello . Griffiths had pointed out beforehand that he and the ‘cellist were a married couple – but even Oscar Wilde, with his “washing one’s clean linen in public” remark, couldn’t have helped but approve, with such felicitous music-making on display! As well, the third movement’s ritualistic waltz-like impulses produced in this performance something at once stirring (those wonderfully ‘”arched” phrases, like uplifted festoons of roses) and surprisingly tender. True, there were passionately-expressed moments in the finale, here given full voice by the performers, but the over-riding impression was one of light-and-shade, the composer seeming more readily to trust his lyrical instincts in these later works than in much of his earlier chamber music. Upholder of the classical tradition he may have been, but the aspect and mood of some of Brahms’ later works present more lines of connection with Romanticism than perhaps the composer himself might have cared to admit.

Naturally most of the concert’s focus fell on the second half’s single work, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Though by now a twentieth-century chamber music classic, the work had eluded me up to the time of this concert, so I had no previous experiences, save some knowledge of the composer’s other music, to bring to the occasion. Reading some of the background to the work’s composition certainly heightened my expectation of hearing something that was uniquely special – and on that score I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Even so, there was for me something unsettling about it all which took me a while to come to grips with, more of which anon.

As is well known, the work was written while Messiaen was interned in a German prisoner-of war camp in Görlitz, in the Eastern German province of Silesia. Thanks to a fortuitous amalgam of humanity and circumstance on the part of both the composer’s fellow prisoners and some of his German captors, Messiaen was able to write a work that gave a lasting voice to both his own creative personality and to a representation of a moment in time interwoven by numerous strands of indomitable human spirit. In later years the composer tended to “mythologize” the circumstances surrounding the work’s first performance, exaggerating the audience numbers and the parlous state of the musical instruments. Evidence from other sources suggests that the work’s gestation and completion was as much the result of collective co-operation as of individual genius. In fact the composer’s German captors went out of their way to facilitate the work’s composition and performance, giving the music a kind of wider reference to collective human empathy, alongside the composer’s own purposes.

The “End of Time” reference by the composer in the title, while relating to to the Apocalyptic imagery contained in the Revelations of St.John seems also to illustrate in musical language the composer’s own attitude towards time – “…not as flow, but as pre-existing, revealing itself to human temporality in a series of brilliant unalike instants…”. We therefore got not a Berlioz-like or Verdi-like Apocalypse, but a more abstractly-conceived and quirkily-expressed outpouring involving elements of plainchant, birdsong and ambient resonance. In between episodes of transcendent stillness and beauty there were occasionally fierce irruptions, and dances that swung along irregular rhythmic trajectories in disarmingly unexpected ways.

It was challenging as a “long-music” concept – ironically, perhaps less so in today’s world, where the constantly-changing mini-byte is the expected mode of communication – but especially to those of us brought up on Aristotelian-like unities of dramatic action and narrative flow within a time-framework. This music simply didn’t do any of that – each of the Quartet’s eight movements had an almost stand-alone independence which had little to do with flow within time. To me there seemed at the time (!) an undermining lack of ostensible organic unity about the piece, completely at odds with the idea of the whole being greater than the sum, etc….later, after my brain had had time to catch up and reorganize its expectations, I began to feel more comfortable in retrospect with what I’d heard, accepting more readily the composer’s idea of time as “pre-existing being” encompassing our “human temporality”.

What I instantly appreciated was the playing of each musician – true, my being able to say that I thought the third-movement clarinet solo “Abyss of the Birds” was a performance highlight, in a sense defines my problem with the piece’s overall unity, but perhaps it equally points to a deficiency of analytical brain-power on my part. In any case, the movement seemed the “dark centre” of the work, the solo instrument contrasting the deep “sadness and weariness” of the ages with the “stars and rainbows and songs” of the birds. Incredible playing from David Griffiths – his instrument produced sounds from the bowels of being, as it were. Comparable moments included the fifth movement ‘cello solo, “In praise of the eternity of Jesus”, Svetlana Bogosavljevic’s beautifully rapt ‘cello playing matching intensities with her husband’s, right to the piece’s held-note conclusion. And though a couple of Wilma Smith’s violin notes weren’t pitched at exactly their mark, her playing’s overall purity and sweetness carried the day to breathtaking effect throughout the work’s final “In praise of the immortality of Jesus”. Here, as in the other movements requiring piano, Timothy Young provided all the delicacy, energy and deep sonority the music asked for.

We in the audience were, by the end, properly caught by the music’s power of communication and enthrallment, and showed our appreciation of the ensemble’s achievement accordingly.








Delight and surprise – Piers Lane at Upper Hutt’s Classical Expressions

Piers Lane at Classical Expressions

FIELD – Nocturnes: No.5 in B-flat H. 37 / No 10 in E Minor H.46B / No.11 in E-flat H.56A

SCRIABIN – 24 Preludes Op.11 / CHOPIN – Waltzes 1-17

Genesis Energy Theatre,

Expressions Arts and Entertainment Centre, Upper Hutt

Tuesday 25th October 2011

Though Piers Lane has been a frequent visitor to New Zealand I’d not heard him play before attending this recital. Naturally I was keen to confirm in my own mind the good things I’d heard various people report about his playing; and the recital’s first half seemed amply to confirm this impression. In the case of each composer (I knew some of Scriabin’s Piano Sonatas, but not his Preludes) the music was new to me, and the pianist’s unfailingly beautiful touch and richly-wrought inner voicing throughout each of the pieces seemed by turns to suit their character to perfection. But as can sometimes happen, the concert’s second half proved somewhat disappointing, compared with the first, as if by some strangely alchemic means everything had been altered. We were given seventeen of the Chopin Waltzes, the pianist breaking them up into groups and talking to his audience about salient points in the music before each bracket. To my surprise, Piers Lane took what appeared to me a kind of gung-ho approach to the music, somewhat at odds with the quote by Schumann reproduced in the program – “Aristocratic from the first note to the last”. Whatever was in the pianist’s mind, it was only intermittently aristocratic – some of it was presented with what seemed like an air of over-familiarity, even impatience in places, as if the music’s jewelled elegance had worn thin, exposing a kind of rough-and-ready base metal.

As Piers Lane worked his way through his groupings of the waltzes (I thought his spoken commentaries before each bracket interesting but made too frequently), the music’s elegance and poise seemed to gradually creep back into some of the playing, especially in the slower, more melancholic waltzes. Occasionally, one of the quicker ones, too, would “go” with a hiss and a roar, justifying Lane’s very direct approach – though I got the feeling that in such instances that particular item had been better “prepared”. An example was the famous “three-against-two” Waltz in A-flat Major Op.42, where Lane actually captured a lovely gossamer quality at speed, and delicately brought out the cross-rhythms in a thoroughly “finished” way, characterizing both quicker and slower sections of the music with enviable fluency. Another instance was the famous “Minute” Waltz, again played with plenty of technical aplomb, enabling the piece’s vertiginous quality its head while keeping its poise – lovely playing. Yet another success was the Waltz I’d first encountered in the ballet “Les Sylphides”, the C-sharp Minor Op.64 No.2, the sinuous melody of the “answering” measures replying to the wistful opening with ever-increasing energy and suggestiveness.I liked also the recitative-like middle section, very “juicily” characterized, before the pianist returned us to the world of doubt and gentle resolve which began the piece.

It will be gleaned from all of this that, punctuating my general air of disappointment throughout the second half of the concert there were occasional delights. Still, my overall impression remained of a kind of generalized and in places insufficiently-honed response to the music. However much an interpreter plays these pieces they ought not to sound routine, or, alternatively “beefed up” energy-wise at the expense of elegance. This was what seemed to happen with some of the better-known Waltzes, such as the much-loved Op.Post.E Minor work, the agitations conjured up by the pianist resulting in an unseemly scramble through the opening episode (Chopin wrote plenty of musical agitation into the notes themselves, which speaks when the piece is played with precision and clarity). The G-flat major Op.70 No.1 which followed I thought skittery and charmless, as though the pianist feared any charge of sentimentality in his approach, while the E Major Op.18 (another “Les Sylphides” introduction for me) suffered from the same brittleness of manner – energies generalized and details insufficiently polished.

Far better to concentrate on the first half of the pianist’s recital, which I thought was splendid, both as a conception and in execution, from beginning to end. Beginning with music by the Irish-born virtuoso pianist John Field, the man credited with writing the first “Nocturnes” for solo piano, Piers Lane played three such pieces, each of which seemed to strongly anticipate the more famous Nocturnes by Chopin. The pianist gave us a short spoken introduction to the music and to its composer, after which he delighted us by illustrating his remarks with playing of the utmost sensitivity. His sound-world for this music seemed to be one which was perfectly wrought between the hands, a richly-sonorous bass working in tandem with a singing right-hand line.

While not as adventurous harmonically as Chopin’s, Field’s pieces certainly had a “stand-alone” quality, the first (No.5 in B-flat) beginning with a melody which could have easily been written by the young Schumann, as Chopin, and featuring also a gentle sequence of Mendelssohn-like chords – a true precursor of the Romantic Age. The second Nocturne, No.10 in E Minor, featured a guitar-like accompaniment of a Chopin-like melody, with gentle flourishes at the end, Lane creating a nicely atmospheric soundscape. No.11 in E-flat brought the hands more closely together, melody and argpeggiated accompaniment almost merging as one in places, except where the melody ascends an octave. The music has a middle section which borders on heroic emotion, the right hand’s strong, deliberate line briefly courting glory, and then becalming again. Field’s intensities seemed to me on this showing to be melodic rather than harmonic, the line curved and shaped over the trajectories of endless arpeggiations, progressions which a lesser pianist might have responded to with some impatience – instead of, as here, sounded by Piers Lane with an ebb and flow of subtly-varied intensities.

The earliest music written by the Russian symbolist composer Alexander Scriabin (born in 1872) owes a good deal to Chopin – though Scriabin’s set of 24 Preludes Op.11 wasn’t completed until 1896, No.4 in E Minor dates from 1888, and is among the earliest of the composer’s surviving works. Scriabin organized his set along the lines of Chopin’s Preludes, a cycle of successive major tonalities a fifth apart on the sharp and flat side of the key of C, each piece paired with its relative minor. While a number of the pieces suggest allegiances to various influences upon the composer – Schumann in a number of the pieces, such as the questioning Allegretto A Minor (No.2), Chopin in the Lento E Minor (No.4) and the Andante Cantabile D Major (No.5), Liszt in the Misterioso B-flat Minor (No.16), and Rachmaninov in the massively grand Affetuoso E-flat Major (No.19) and the final D Minor Presto (No.24) – there are occasional precursors of the mature Scriabin, such as the ecstatic outpourings found in the opening Vivace C Major (No.1)and the Andante D-sharp Minor (No.10), and the pictorial contrasts of calm and storm which characterize the Andante G-sharp Minor (No.12).

I couldn’t have imagined a more atmospheric, richly-conceived performance of these works as Piers Lane gave us – what impressed me most of all (confirmed by a friend sitting elsewhere in the audience whom I spoke with at the interval) was the unerring focus of the pianist’s touch throughout, creating tones whose translucence allowed both clarity and colour at all times. Looking through my notes recalls my constant delight at the SOUND of it all, and the ease with which Lane evoked the music’s myriads of characterful moods, and, just as readily, let each one go in favour of newly-formed impressions.

There were too many moments worthy of specific mention, except that, as stated above I was struck by how his beautifully-coloured musical focus brought out in Scriabin’s youthful pieces what seemed to be something of the spirit of Schumann’s quixotic world, echoing the latter’s questioning, ambivalent vignettes of emotion in places such as the B-flat Major Andante (No.21) and its companion, the Lento G Minor (No.22). But the important thing was Lane’s ability to sustain the musical argument throughout the whole of the set, like a journey through an intensely poetic landscape, with a guide whose sensibilities enabled the music to speak with its full range of expressive force.

I understand Piers Lane has recorded all of Scriabin’s Preludes (he wrote numerous sets of them following this one, totalling nearly ninety individual pieces) on a two-disc Hyperion issue, which, in the wake of this recital, I shall be sorely tempted to investigate. The pianist’s Chopin-playing remains a puzzle, to my mind, but one I’m happy for the moment to put aside in favour of my recollections of his Field and Scriabin, which for me were this recital’s very great pleasures.

New Zealand School of Music and Symphony Orchestra players join in rapturous performances

NZSM Hunter Concert Series: Schubert’s String Quintet in C, D 956  and Tchaikovsky’s sextet, Souvenir de Florence, Op 70

Vesa-Matti Leppänen and Martin Riseley (violins), Julia Joyce and Donald Maurice (violas), Andrew Joyce and Inbal Megiddo (cellos)

Hunter Council Chamber, Victoria University

Thursday 20 October, 7.30pm

I often feel, as I sit at the computer after getting home from a concert, that all I want to say is something like: ‘this evening several gifted musicians, after conscientious rehearsing, gave beautiful performances of marvellous music – perhaps an acknowledged masterpiece – that has been handed down to us by scores of music lovers, composed 100, 200, 300 ago by gifted composers who were intent above all on giving musical stimulation and pleasure to their audiences”.

And it often seems churlish and inappropriate to have listened with such deliberate critical attention, seeking flaws, that I would feel the need to remark on some minor defect, possibly merely a difference in tempo, in dynamic shifts or emphasis, or some aspect that could perhaps be compared unfavourably with another performance.

Schubert’s Quintet in C is such a sublime piece that it can withstand quite a wide variety of approaches to its performance, even performances that have distinct shortcomings. The music is that much greater than any individual performance.

The music that one heard early in one’s life tends to remain clearly connected with the place and circumstances of its hearing, and that is probably true for most people’s first hearing of this quintet. For me it was at the house of a friend I’d made in Stage I Latin classes at Victoria University in 1953. Though it moved me deeply, I didn’t then have enough breadth of musical experience really to realize what a masterpiece it was, an understanding that has arisen over many years.

On Thursday evening, the performance by these musicians – three NZSO principals and three leading School of Music faculty members, arguably among the finest players of their instruments in the country – was so deeply felt and generally so technically admirable that the very minor smudges had no impact on me at all; in fact in the face of such beautiful playing, it seemed an impertinence even to have registered them.

Schubert’s greatest works are full of melody that seems to flow endlessly, and in such a natural, organic manner to create music whose structural complexity seems to have sprung fully formed from the mind of the composer, yet at the same time it is of breathtaking simplicity. One of its features is the equality accorded to each of the five instruments. In earlier chamber music, the first violin usually had a leading role, enjoyed most of the tunes in their shapeliest state and was given most of the opportunities for virtuosity. But with Schubert the tunes move from one player to another, reflecting the French Revolution’s égalité, and the tunes themselves seem easily confused with what might otherwise be called accompaniments.

The Adagio is the most wondrous movement where, after several minutes of intense elegiac beauty, an agitated phase arises, led by tormented pulses from the two cellos that seems to express determination, against all grief,  to live life to the full.

The Scherzo gives prominence to some hard bowing by the two cellos, and strong rhythms, but the Trio, which usually offers something of a rhythmic and tonal contrast returned the music to the deeply melancholy spirit of the Adagio, interesting that the main theme is played by viola and cello – Julia and Andrew Joyce – in a duet that one felt, by just listening to the rapturous beauty that the pair produced, was to be intruding on a very private communion.

I always wonder why we need a last movement, usually fast and happy, of a deeply meditative piece like this; is Schubert merely conforming with convention? But, apart from providing the structural counterweight to the first movement, it justifies its place by means of its spirited energy and the accomplished fugal passages that somehow produce a sense of intellectual and emotional depth.

The concert was given the title, 3+2+1. What did this mean? I guess, the three NZSO players, plus the two instrumental teachers from the School of Music who took part in the Schubert and finally, the addition of violist and professor at the school, Donald Maurice, as the sixth voice in the Tchaikovsky.

The front of the programme was the striking reproduction of a make-believe scene, a painting by Domenico Mileto called Trompe l’oeil, depicting Florence, through a Renaissance arch with the Duomo prominent in the middle distance.

Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence suffers somewhat, especially in the minds of chamber music devotees, from the lingering notion that Tchaikovsky’s melodic fecundity has to indicate a less serious composer, and less capable of complex, deep musical manipulations.  But its performance in the company of Schubert ought to dispel such ideas, for in Schubert’s no more than 15 years, not even Tchaikovsky created such a huge body of beautiful, melodious music.

Players changed places for this: Martin Riseley now took the first violin position and Inbal Megiddo and Andrew Joyce changed places. The Souvenir is indeed so replete with gorgeous lyrical melody that at times seems almost surreal, but it certainly reflects the composer’s love of Italy.

This piece seemed to lend itself more to solo highlights, some long-breathed melodies like Julia Joyce’s big tune in the first movement, some more in the nature of accompanying motifs such as Donald Maurice’s a little later. Martin Riseley’s vigorous and delightful playing of a prominent melody enlivened the first movement; his playing was showcased again in the second movement, against pizzicato from the other instruments, who soon pick up their bows. Andrew Joyce had another beautiful solo melody to himself before it was taken up by Riseley and Maurice again. The third movement, marked Allegretto rather than Scherzo till a sudden Vivace episode, was played brilliantly, in high spirits; but the dance-like music was in the Finale – Allegro con brio e vivace – which offered lively solo opportunities to all players. This was so brilliantly delivered that the audience erupted with long applause and even some shouting, that recalled the six players four times.



Intelligent programme of well played chamber music at Lower hutt

Wieniawski: Reverie for viola and piano
Bruch: Nos. 1, 5 (Rumanian Melody), 6 (Nocturne) and 2 from Eight Pieces, Op.83 (originally for clarinet, viola and piano)
Brahms: Sonata for viola and piano, Op.120 no.2, in E flat major
Piazolla: Tango Primavera Portena

Victoria Jaenecke, viola; Martin Jaenecke, violin; Rachel Thomson, piano

St. Mark’s Church, Lower Hutt

Wednesday, 19 October, 12.15pm

A superb concert by professional musicians, with an interesting and varied programme greeted those who attended at St. Mark’s Church.  It was a considerably smaller attendance than that at Upper Hutt the previous lunchtime.

One of the features was the perfect balance between the instruments.  The lid of the piano was fully up, but there was carpet on the floor.  Whether it was the carpet, the skill of the pianist, or a bit of both, the larger instrument never dominated the others, but neither was it too reticent.

Victoria Jaenecke and Rachel Thomson started proceedings with the Reverie.  It began slowly, in the minor key.  This was an attractive piece, exceedingly well played with great sonority.  A lovely middle section led to a return to the sombre tones of the opening.

The players were joined by Martin Jaenecke for the series of Bruch pieces.  Martin’s violin tone is warm and seductive, and matches the viola well.  The second piece had figures of separated chords on the piano, against a low, solemn melody on viola, before moving into a more lilting section for all three instruments.  Here, as elsewhere, the players demonstrated superb ensemble.

The Nocturne, no.6, commenced with viola and piano.  This movement was much more square in form, but tuneful and pleasing, becoming passionate as it progressed, finally subsiding into a dreamy ending.

The final piece played (no.2) began with the piano, then the viola entered.  The music became faster, yet it was still eloquent.

Brahms’s sonata may be more familiar in the version for clarinet, but the viola version was very attractive in these hands.  The sunny opening movement, allegro amabile, featured a complex piano part, ably performed by Rachel Thomson, and a lovely coda.

The second movement, appassionato ma non troppo – allegro, was faster than I have previously heard it, but did not seem to suffer for that.  The solemn middle section transposed the opening theme most effectively.   The finale, andante con moto – allegro non troppo, delivered an imposing opening theme, with chords.  Rapid lilting passages followed.  The allegro seemed somewhat troppo to me, especially for the piano, but this gave a brilliant ending.

Throughout the entire concert I may have heard four or five ‘bum’ notes.  This was music-making of a high order.

The final item was an arrangement of a tango by Piazolla.  Beginning with a violin solo accompanied by pizzicato on the viola, it was lively, with off-beat rhythms and interesting harmonies.  Pizzicato ended the first section, then a more serious melody was introduced on the viola, soon to be joined by the violin.  Harmonic uncertainties and chromaticism led to a sprightly, even jazzy section to conclude.  It evoked the whirling, twirling dancers, and their final gesture and pose.

Apart from the Brahms sonata, the music was unfamiliar to me.  The programme was so intelligently constructed and the items so unfailingly well played, that it maintained the attention and enjoyment throughout.

The audience was informed that next Wednesday’s recital will see eight musicians perform Mendelssohn’s wonderful Octet (although that is not what is advertised in the flyer circulated early in the year); something to look forward to.



Superb recital from NZSM voice students at Upper Hutt

Arias from opera; songs

New Zealand School of Music: Vocal students of Richard Greager, Jenny Wollerman and Flora Edwards, with Mark Dorrell (piano)

Rotary Foyer, Expressions Arts and Entertainment Centre, Upper Hutt

Tuesday 18 October 2011, 2pm

This was the last of a monthly series of free concerts given by performance students from the New Zealand School of Music, that began in March.  It attracted a full house, there being over 100 people present.  All the singers presented their items with poise and confidence, and most were formally dressed.  Up to the last four items, all except three were from opera.

The foyer has a fine acoustic, and both pianist and singers seemed able to perform well there.  There is a café sharing the space, and this meant a certain amount of chatter and clatter, not to mention delicious aromas.  However, it was never very loud, nor was there constant noise, so on balance, it made a pleasant, somewhat informal venue – more literally chamber music than is usually the case.

Due to road-works near the venue and the resulting traffic jam, and also the paucity of parking in the daytime, I missed the first two items, unfortunately.  They were Handel’s ‘Ombrai mai fu’ from Xerxes, sung by Thomas Atkins, and ‘Che faro senza Euridice’ from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, performed by Emily Simcox.  These two arias would have made a pleasingly familiar start to the concert.

Thomas Barker gave a spirited introduction to his Mozart aria ‘Non piu andrai’ from Le Nozze di Figaro, sang it in like vein, and acted it out with bravado.  The same composer’s ‘Il mio tesoro’ from Don Giovanni was performed by Thomas Atkins.  While he had plenty of force, he also had a lovely tone, and skilled negotiation of the florid passages.

Angelique Macdonald sang Gabriel Fauré’s song Clair de lune, which she introduced.  Her French language was very good, but her voice was rather shrill at the top, for this acoustic, while it might be fine in an opera house.

Smetana’s ‘O jaký žal’ from The Bartered Bride was next, sung by Amelia Ryman.  This singer has a powerful voice, but it was beautifully controlled.  She gave a very dramatic performance of the aria.

Thomas O’Brien performed ‘Kuda, kuda’ from Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky.  His Russian language sounded good, and the aria was competently sung, but the voice needs to grow somewhat in size to sing this aria as it deserves.  The top of the range was a little insecure, but the singer paid great attention to detail.

Still in Russia were two songs by Rachmaninov, sung by Angelique Macdonald.  The printed programme gave the English translations of the titles: ‘Before my window’ and ‘How fair [is?] this place’.  There were some fine, soft top notes, and the singer varied her voice attractively.  She put these songs over disarmingly.  However, her breathing was noisy at times.

Verdi was represented by the well-known ‘Questa o quella’ from Rigoletto, sung by Thomas Atkins.  This really suited the singer’s voice, which has developed since I heard him some months ago.  He has a ringing top, and his production of the words was excellent.  This was a most satisfying performance.

Angelique Macdonald sang again, this time a famous aria from Turandot by Puccini: ‘Signore ascolta’, which she introduced.  This is her forte – in more than one sense.  It was a very good rendition, but she needs a little more mellowness and warmth in the voice.

It was pleasing to hear a New Zealand song: a poem of James K. Baxter’s simply titled Song by the composer, Anthony Ritchie.  It was thoughtfully sung by Amelia Ryman.  The words were very clear indeed, the tone was gorgeous, and all in all it was an absolutely lovely realisation of a skilled composition.

Cole Porter’s song Miss Otis Regrets brought a laugh from the audience at the end, but Emily Simcox sang it too ‘straight’.  She has a beautiful, natural voice, but there was insufficient expression, and she made the song seem almost routine.  Words were clear, but I think a lady in society would say ‘today’, not ‘tiday’.  The song cried out for more vocal and facial expression.

Schönberg (Claude-Michel, not Arnold) was the composer of the popular Les Miserables, from which Thomas Barker sang ‘Stars’, with flair and aplomb.  It was a strong and impassioned performance, in which he used his voice appropriately for the style of music.  He was undoubtedly more flamboyant than the other performers, but has a good voice to go with it.

The concert ended less successfully, with a trio (Ryman, Macdonald and O’Brien) from Mozart’s Mass in C minor, K.427: ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’.  While most of the items performed would have been written for orchestra, somehow it didn’t seem to matter that a piano was used in the solos, but it did in the Mass excerpt.  O’Brien’s voice not being as strong as those of the women, meant the trio was not well balanced, and coming at the end of a recital of secular songs and arias, it did not fit well.

Nevertheless, overall this was a superb recital, demonstrating the talents and skills of the students, and the excellence of the teaching they receive.



Boutique Opera does “the Jones boy” proud

Edward German: Tom Jones

Boutique Opera

Directed by Alison Hodge

Arranger and Musical Director, Michael  Vinten

Wellington High School Hall,

15 October, 7.30pm

Apparently there were five different scores for German’s light opera, premiered in Manchester in 1907.  Since it became so popular, it was performed frequently, the last version being from 1913; a concert version for performance by choral societies (sung by the Orpheus Choir’s predecessor in the Hutt Valley in 1953 and 1957).

Michael Vinten has taken the music from various versions of  Tom Jones, including film and television versions, introducing situations from Henry Fielding’s novel of 1749, which were not included in German’s work.  He has done a great job!

The result was a seamless, fast-moving entertainment, involving both speaking (some with music in the background) and singing.  Though there was no set, and little in the way of props, the costumes were excellent, and the whole production gave evidence of much rehearsal and learning.  However, mention must be made of the delightful hobby-horses used in the second Act.

A seven-piece orchestra, including piano, worked hard and played well, though occasionally too loud for the singers, or more particularly the speakers, especially when the latter were at the orchestra end of the performing space.  The pianist was Ken Ryan, whom I recently heard performing at the other end of the musical spectrum, as a baritone soloist with The Tudor Consort.

The hall’s stage was virtually not used, the action taking place ‘in the round’, with rows of chairs (hard plastic school chairs, not designed for sitting on for two and a half hours) on each side, the rear ones raised on platforms.

Described as “A Musical Farce in Two Acts”, this was a considerable undertaking for the producers, Lesley and Ian Graham.  There was a cast of seven main characters and a chorus of 16, many of whom undertook minor solo roles also.

There was a lot of intrigue, sub-plot and counter-plot for the audience to keep track of; programme notes under the headings ‘The Plot’ and ‘The Music’, plus a list of the songs and a cast list, helped a lot.

The show commenced with talking (sometimes with musical background), the cast explaining the situation and the roles – all in character as they did this.  Finally, Roger Wilson began the singing, with chorus.  As Squire Western, father of Sophia, the heroine (Rose Blake) he was, as always, characterful and convincing, with an English country accent appropriate to Somerset, where the story was set.

We then met the ‘West Country Lad’, Tom Jones, sung by Jonathan Abernethy.  He has a well-produced, smooth and most attractive voice, and invariably sang convincingly in this, the main role in the show.  He was confident and had good stage presence.

With 28 songs, most relatively short, there was a lot of singing going on.  The chorus was very accurate, and each was fully involved in their roles.  Words came over well, on the whole; the singing was good, and cohesive.

Next up of the soloists was Rose Blake.  Her singing was excellent, although occasionally a little too operatic in style for a farce.  However, her acting was certainly appropriate to this show.  The trio that followed, ‘Festina Lente’ with Sophie, Honour (mezzo Natalie Williams) was very successfully sung and acted.

Blifil (Michael Miller) was not so satisfactory vocally, although he looked and acted his anti-hero part well enough.  The sextet ‘The Barley Mow’ was quite a highlight – a drinking song, sung very robustly.

Charles Wilson made the most of his role as Benjamin Partridge, his acting exactly fitting for a farce, and raising many a smile.  Vocally, too, he was more than adequate, characterising his voice appropriately.

Tom’s next appearance was to sing ‘A Foundling Boy’, a suitably touching aria that Abernethy sang beautifully, as did Rose Blake in ‘By Night and Day’, though there was a tendency for her voice to be a little shrill at the top of her range.

Such were the affaires in which Tom Jones was involved, it was at times a little tricky to keep track of who was who amongst the women.  Mrs. Fitzpatrick (Maline Di Leva) was one such.  She had a lovely voice, but it was not always quite strong enough in the rather unsympathetic acoustic.  As to intonation, she was utterly accurate.

At the end of Act 1, the chorus was briefly ‘out of synch’, but this did not occur elsewhere in the show.

Following the introduction to Act 2, there was the ‘Gavotte’ scene.  If not a perfect gavotte as to steps, it was nevertheless beautifully done (and sung) in the rather confined space available.

The ‘Playhouse Riot’ was very effective.  Rose Blake acted the frightened country girl superbly, while the men made the most of their chorus.  Natalie Williams (Honour, which she tried to preserve in others as well as herself) followed with one of her several fine contralto arias and ensembles, this one, ‘As the maids and I one day’, being very reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan, as indeed were other numbers in the show.  And indeed, Lerner and Loewe may have learned something from Edward German.

An attractive ‘Barcarolle’ from the chorus was followed by ‘Waltz’, engagingly sung by Sophia and chorus.  This was the only song in the show that I knew, having attempted many years ago to accompany a singer performing it.  The following four-part ‘Madrigal’ again had echoes of Gilbert and Sullivan

Tom’s solo ‘If Love’s Content’ was quite lovely, and his sustained high note very fine.  This was followed by the jolly ‘Back to Somersetshire’, with the horses, and then the dénouement, in which paternity and maternity issues are sorted out, and Roger Wilson, as Western, in one of the funniest moments, has an exceedingly rapid change of heart as to the suitability of Tom as a husband for his daughter Sophie.

All is sorted, and the sizeable audience applauded heartily, in the knowledge that they had got their money’s worth and were thoroughly entertained by an innovative and lively production.  All responsible should give themselves a good pat on the back.

How fortunate we are to have, on the same day, an orchestra playing Brahms superbly well, and musicians and singers putting on a capable, first-class performance of Tom Jones!

The season continues in the Otaki Civic Theatre on Saturday, 22 October at 7.30pm, and at Expressions, Upper Hutt, Sunday 23 October at 2pm.


Audience cheers the last of the NZSO’s Brahms concerts

Academic Overture, Op 80
Concerto for Violin and Cello in A minor, Op.102 (allegro, andante, vivace non troppo – poco meno allegro meno allegro)
Symphony no.4 in E minor, Op.98 (allegro non troppo, andante moderato, allegro giocoso, allegro energico e passionata)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen, with Mikhail Ovrutsky (violin) and Andrew Joyce (cello)

Michael Fowler Centre

Saturday, 15 October 2011, 2pm

In this concert, unlike any of the others in this series, the major works were both in minor keys.  However, it started with a work of a cheerful and light nature, described by Inge van Rij in her pre-concert talk, as “Popular and serious styles working hand in hand”.

It was pleasing to see a much bigger audience at this concert.   Obviously there are many people for whom the weekend is a much more suitable time to come to a concert, rather than 6.30pm on a weekday – at which time, inexplicably, most of the NZSO concerts have been scheduled this year.  As befitted an afternoon concert, the orchestra members wore a different mode of dress, the men in white shirts and grey ties with dark lounge suits, while Pietari Inkinen wore a dark shiny suit, and shiny black shoes.

The Overture used a smaller orchestra than that required for most of Brahms’s symphonic works; this was in response to the requirement of Breslau University, from whom the composer received an honorary doctorate in 1879.  Nevertheless, the work has flair as well as precision, in its reworking of student songs, including at the end, the well-known ‘Gaudeamus igitur’.  The playing was robust and energetic, and despite fewer brass and woodwind players, there was a loud and emphatic ending.

Compared with the violin concerto, the double concerto for violin and cello is seldom played.  Yet it is a very fine work, Brahms’s last for orchestra, and worthy of more frequent airings.  Some have thought it strange using instruments of such different pitch and timbre, but the cello has a huge range – and Beethoven’s Triple Concerto is one of the most mellifluous works of the classical repertoire.

The cello opened the action, with double-stopping and high notes.  Then cellist Joyce played a brilliant duet with the violin soloist, both players employing great subtlety and expression, rhythmic drive and unanimity.   Maybe sitting a few rows further forward than I did on Thursday evening was better for sound, or perhaps Mikhail Ovrutsky played with a more mellow tone.  Whichever applies (or neither), I did not find fault with his tone on this occasion.  On the contrary, he played with great feeling, especially in the lyrical middle section of the first movement.

The second movement, too, revealed the unified interpretation and performance of the soloists.  There was an evocative woodwind chorus, and the mellow sound of melodious strings in the final section.  Always, Andrew Joyce produced a rich and attractive timbre.

The third movement featured lithe cello, followed by the same liveliness and spirit on the violin.  The technical proficiency of both soloists was very apparent, while the positive mood of this movement gave the whole work a hopeful feel, despite its earlier minor key.  While the movement is serious for much of the time, it is not as sombre as many of Brahms’s works are.  Its triumphal ending resulted in a show of great enthusiasm from the audience, while the orchestra showed its warm appreciation; the members were obviously very impressed with the playing of the visiting soloist and of their own new principal cellist.

The flowers which Joyce received at the end he gallantly gave to his wife, acting principal violist Julia Joyce; Ovrutsky felt obliged to emulate, and gave his flowers to the nearest female cellist.

The symphony constituted the major work on the programme.  Its swaying opening bars immediately drew attention.  This was deliberate, careful, skilled writing.  Here, there was a little untidy string playing, but this was most unusual.  Drive and energy were characteristic of the attack.  Falling thirds formed part of the massive architecture; the movement was characterised by almost relentless forte.

The andante second movement stopped short of being relentless.  It had even more vigour, but was also more luminous and meditative, this mood alternating with tension and grandiosity.   Typically with Brahms, it featured memorable themes.

Allegro giocoso was just that – bright, jolly and exuberant, and according to some commentators, this was his only orchestral scherzo.  At the end, it is almost overwhelming in its power and volume.

The finale is in the form of a passacaglia, with 31 variations on a theme from a Bach cantata.  A grand opening in the brass department was followed by ominous chords before the figure from Bach was stated, coupled with the falling thirds from the opening movement.  Lovely deep brass dissonances interspersed the lines of the other players.

At times, Brahms is portentous and annoyingly repetitive.  At times, he is sublime and a master of melody, and of lofty thought and expression.  The music is frequently scintillatingly soft and expressive.  His frequent favouring of the cello and the oboe makes one wish he had written concertos for these instruments.  Indeed, he is reported to have greeted Dvořák’s cello concerto with the remark “If I had known it was possible to write a cello concerto like that, I would have written one myself”.

The falling thirds appeared again, with the brass playing a sequence rising from the bass.  There was a rousing end to the symphony, and the series, and a warm reception from the audience, the cheers resounding as the leaders of the wind section stood individually, before the whole orchestra received the applause all its members richly deserved.



Brahmissimo: Third concert with 3rd symphony and 1st piano concerto: magnificent

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen with Michael Houstoun (piano)

Brahms: Symphony No 3 in F, Op 90 and Piano Concerto No 1 in D minor, Op 15

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 14 October, 6.30pm

This Brahms festival which started on Wednesday, has created a wonderful festive atmosphere in the Michael Fowler Centre each evening. Though on Friday, the audience was of reasonable size – I guess around 1200 – earlier it had been smaller, but the atmosphere was there from the first evening. It’s sad that so many things militate against several thousand people waking up to the marvels of good music and Brahms in particular.

The Symphony – No 3 in F major – was played first, presumably because it’s the shorter work – a good 10 minutes shorter – and probably has to be rated less weighty; and the symphony ends quietly while the concerto is simply a more passionate work with a huge emotional range, ending in a mighty climax.

But the symphony begins with arresting timpani to launch the first waltz-style movement and continues in its peaceful, pastoral vein – remember it’s in the same key as Beethoven’s Pastoral. Inkinen’s tempi and the inner feeling within each phrase and sentence, seem to be so right, so inevitable, and his rallentandos – the recur in  the first movement – are perfectly gauged.

You can tell very early in a performance whether it’s going to carry you to heaven and back, or whether there are things that are unconvincing, irritating, deceptive or dishonest. All my recent experiences of Inkinen have been of the former kind.

I was seated in the centre stalls for the first two concerts; this time I was on the left of the gallery facing the violas with the timpani behind them. As a result I probably heard the timpani rather emphatically; and because of sound reflections which do curious things in this space, I also had rich experience of double basses which were on the left of the stage, behind the cellos which, for Inkinen, change places with second violins.

Otherwise, balances between instrumental sections were beautiful.

The second movement is slightly calmer than the first but it seems only to modify the same spirit and very similar musical material. It’s in common time but there are passages of triplet quavers alternating with the 4/4 rhythm. The second theme has the flavour of Dvořák – say, the Eighth symphony – and the mood of the whole suggests that composer, whom Brahms helped and admired and remained on generally good terms with. The oboe and clarinet have significant roles in the movement’s colour and these were beautifully played (respectively Peter Dykes and Philip Green).

While the third movement is entitled Poco allegretto, the pace sounds only a little faster than the second; towards the end, in a very characteristic Brahms idiom, a long horn solo is taken up by oboe then clarinet and bassoon, and then fades quietly to allow the finale, Allegro, to follow. It begins with a connecting chorale-like theme but suddenly catches fire as a real finale is supposed to do; it’s the first real boisterousness to emerge. But as that fell away, Inkinen recaptured the mood of the other movements, and the spirit of peace and acceptance reigned in this very unusual finale which slowly fades out in one of the beautiful decrescendos and rallentandos.

It was a very beautiful performance of a remarkable symphony.

The First Piano Concerto is astonishing: it seems such a profound and mature work to have been penned by a 25-year-old, somehow more heroic and emotionally powerful than the B flat concerto from late in his career. The orchestra has a long introduction whose burnished richness and epic symphonic character hardly created the expectation of a showy concerto.

And of course that is what it is not.

When Houstoun enters the spirit of the music doesn’t change; and the density and weight of the orchestral introduction is transferred to the keyboard. The big chords with their heavy trills announced a complete break from the kind of glittery, virtuosic piano concertos that were being written through the mid 19th century. It seems the sort of concerto that was composed with a pianist like Houstoun in mind, perfectly capable of dazzling with bravura and speed, but whose nature seems far more in tune with music of real intellectual and emotional depth. Nevertheless, there are some highly challenging and visually attractive episodes that Houstoun navigates without ado but with marvellous sonority and panache. Elsewhere, for example in the latter part of the first movement, the piano has passages that respond to his sturdy, fluidly-paced playing that is also quite beautiful.

The end of the first movement seems imminent, but Brahms keeps us waiting and filling our ears with sounds that make the delay a blessing, finally coming to rest in the dark D minor mood of the Mozart’s Don Giovanni – after more than 20 minutes of enraptured, revelatory performance.

The second movement, the famous portrait of Clara Schumann, shows a rapturous, romantic Brahms, and it’s a time to luxuriate in Houstoun’s solo piano passages which had an improvisational character, along with the orchestra in a hushed and profoundly mature Adagio – how can this be a 25-year-old’s first foray in large-scale orchestral music?

It’s interesting that the orchestra, for all its weight in this work, is at classical strength: no trombones or tuba, no percussion other than timpani, no harp, two trumpets and just normal double woodwinds without a bass clarinet, contrabassoon or cor anglais, but with five horns. Horns are a significant Brahms hallmark and throughout this festival of his orchestral music, it has been his glorious handling of French horns that has caught the ear again and again. Happily, the horn section is back in good shape after the interregnum following Ed Allen’s departure, now under guest principal Samuel Jacobs; their sounds were one of the glories of this series, with particularly difficult work in this concerto.

The concerto ends with an Allegro – non troppo and, as always, Inkinen’s tempi seemed utterly right, and though the mood is lighter, hinting at the character of Schumann’s concerto, he succeeds in making us hear that a mighty musical mind is still very present. Though the rhythm is buoyant, the serious spirit remains, and Houstoun’s piano continued to be resolute and strongly based while the second, ‘B’, section of the Rondo is often rhapsodic and decorated by trills and delightful scales and passage-work.  The occasional dramatic punctuations from the orchestra, timpani-based, alternating with translucent textures from lightly-bowed figures in the strings and fluttering woodwind decorations, created a marvellously balanced, complementary structure that was deeply satisfying.

As I finish this review, after attending the fourth concert with the Double Concerto and the 4th Symphony, I retain the feeling that, for all the splendid playing by Mikhail Ovrutsky and Andrew Joyce, and that great symphony, it was the third concert that made the most profound emotional impact, and has induced me to explore other versions of those works, none of which, though interestingly different, seem better than what I heard on Friday in the Michael Fowler Centre.


Paul Rosoman’s adventurous organ recital at St Paul’s midday

Music by Karg-Elert, Marco Bossi, Guilmant, Liszt and John Bull

Paul Rosoman – organ

Cathedral of St Paul, Wellington

Friday 14 October, 12.45pm

The monthly organ series at the Anglican Cathedral might not get the sort of crowds one might have seen on the next two days in a big arena in Auckland, but for the few they are a valuable alternative, or perhaps an addition to the entertainments that otherwise dominate our world.

In all the quite frequent organ recitals that I get to around the city, I wonder at the profound change that has overcome the world in the past century, at the beginning of which communities had the will and could find the money to build generally rather beautiful buildings in which to celebrate their beliefs, and even more, to equip them with very expensive, technologically quite sophisticated musical instruments.

I am not an organist, but I have never been able to walk past a church where an organ is being played, and it is sad that today, one cannot even enter most churches freely, let alone stand and wait for the sound of an organ being played.

Paul Rosoman’s recital comes not long after his return from an interesting tour that took him to a small organ festival at Pelplin about 40km south of Gdansk in northern Poland. He also played in Germany and Britain.

He did not bring back any music from Poland but his programme was nevertheless very interesting: I had heard none of the music before.

It began with a highly diverting Homage to Handel, Sigfrid Karg-Elert’s Op 75. His name used to be more familiar – it was to me when my musical discoveries were starting in the 1950s – than it seems to be now, at least in New Zealand.

His piece is based on the same Handel theme – the Passacaglia from the Harpsichord Suite in G minor, HWV 432 – that was used by Johan Halvorsen in his Passacaglia for violin and viola that was played in a version for violin and cello, at the Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson last February, and in March by the violinist and violist of the Antipodes Trio at Paekakariki and in August by members of the Mêler Ensemble.

But the tune is distinctive and didn’t need background familiarity to enjoy it.

This time it provided the compoer with the basis for the most extraordinary, virtuosic exercise in kaleidoscopic registration changes and combinations. The programme note said there were 50 distinct combinations of stops – I didn’t count though – and that it was rarely played because most organs lacked the necessary range or technology. I couldn’t tell whether the, to me, brilliant scope of the cathedral organ filled the bill or whether Rosoman had to make compromises.

It is indeed the kind of piece that would captivate the neophyte as well as gain the admiration of the aficionado, particularly in the commanding performance given here.

Marco Enrico Bossi was a few years older than Karg-Elert and his Chant de soir was obviously designed to charm a fairly general audience; interestingly scored for some of the prettier stops, sentimental in an intelligent way, a touch elegiac.

Then came a more substantial piece by Guilmant who, you will remember, was RNZ Concert’s ‘Composer of the Week’ a while back. This was the Scherzo from his Fifth Organ Sonata, Op 80; it turned out to be a quietish scherzo in its pace and dynamics but its scherzoicity (neoglism acceptable?) emerged from the flamboyance of its melodic lines and bravura passage-work.

A short piece by Liszt followed – a charming set of variations on a choral setting of a pretty 16th century Ave Maria by one Jacob Arcadelt. If you look up Wikipedia, as I did, you will see a small reproduction of Caravaggio’s famous painting , The Lute Player, which is said to show the young woman (? – but you know about Caravaggio don’t you?) playing music by Arcadelt. The painting is in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. It also shows very precise and interesting detail of the character of the lute and of a violin resting on a table, especially of the bow.

The music was not especially remarkable but provided a very nice link to the last piece – the entire recital was built on a reverse chronological sequence – by John Bull, a Rondo in G.

Bull (born a couple of years before Shakespeare)  left a large quantity of fine keyboard music and his position in English music in the Elizabethan-Jacobean period is very close to Byrd and Gibbons.  His life was eventful: in New Grove (and also in Wikipedia), interesting details of his life can be read. Wikipedia sums it up: “However, in addition to his virtuosity as a keyboard performer and composer, Bull was also skilled at getting into trouble.”

And a report written in 1615 by the Archbishop of Canterbury goes into a bit more detail: “the man hath more music than honesty and is as famous for marring of virginity as he is for fingering of organs and virginals.” – nice archiepiscopal double-entendre.

This Rondo struck me as an extraordinarily sophisticated piece of writing, though its very un-Renaissance sound and complexity would have resulted from performance on this organ. But I assume it is a modern arrangement, for its treatment is virtuosic, elaborate and opulent , seeming to relish its access to the organ’s power and tonal variety. It sounded great fun, and the long pause before the coda sounded far more 19th than 16th century. And Rosoman’s performance did it complete justice.

I could not identify the actual piece in New Grove, let alone Wikipedia.

This was a highly entertaining recital; such a pity that there weren’t a thousand organ-sceptics there ready for conversion.


Brahmissimo! The second concert with the violin concerto

Brahms: Tragic Overture, Op 81
Violin Concerto in D major, Op.77
Symphony no.2 in D major, Op.73

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pietari Inkinen, with Mikhail Ovrutsky, violin

Michael Fowler Centre

Thursday, 13 October 2011, 6.30pm

With Brahms being Radio New Zealand Concert’s composer of the week this week, plus this series of four New Zealand Symphony Orchestra concerts, music-lovers are being treated to a veritable festival of his music.  How wonderful this morning (Friday) to hear on radio Jonathan Lemalu’s superlative, sensitive recording of the composer’s Four Serious Songs.

On Thursday it was more of his symphonic music, following the first concert in the series on Wednesday evening.

Concertmaster Vessa-Matti Lepännen spoke to the audience before the conductor entered, dedicating the evening’s concert to the memory of Christopher Doig, who had died that morning.  Among his many, many roles in the cultural and sporting life of the nation he was responsible over recent years for Sponsorship and Business Development for the orchestra, based in his beloved home city of Christhcurch.  In the last week he had greeted the great tenor Placido Domingo in Christchurch, a trip organised by Doig to raise funds for earthquake victims there.

He announced only days ago a scholarship for young singers – as a superb tenor himself, one of the very best New Zealand has produced, he was always encouraging others musicians, as Lepännen attested.

In Wellington he will be remembered best as the Director of the 1990 New Zealand International Festival of the Arts, and the production in that Festival of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, with Sir Donald McIntyre as the principal soloist.  His loss to the cultural scene in this country is colossal; the fruits of his labours will live on for a long time.

How appropriate, then, for the concert to commence with the Tragic Overture, by a composer who spent most of his life in Vienna, a city where Chris Doig had been principal tenor at the opera house for a number of years.

Probably attracted by the Violin Concerto, the attendance was better than at the first concert, but there were still far too many empty seats downstairs in the Michael Fowler Centre.  We have a fine orchestra; more people need to discover it and the great music it plays.

This was as good a performance of the Tragic Overture as I have heard live; the playing had urgency, and was truly dramatic.  The wind solos were given due prominence, while the passage featuring pizzicato strings and haunting woodwind sent shivers down the spine.  The music presaged dire tragedy; it made me think of Lucia di Lammermoor.  The red and black lighting around the stage heightened the sense of looming disaster.

The sombre brass surge in the final pages, with soft descending strings, gave a sense of resolution, even of overcoming tragedy.  It was a masterful performance.

An irritant between items was that the lights were turned down.  Surely they should be turned up, so that audience members can read their programmes?  And they were well worth reading.  Frances Moore’s notes for the whole series were simply outstanding.  Her vivid language and impeccable writing made them a delight to read.

Inge van Rij’s pre-concert talk too, was informative, interesting, and well-expressed.  She spoke of the background to Brahms’s 1879 violin concerto, and the context of his time and place, which resulted in this beautiful yet unpretentious work that did not seek primarily to display the skills of the soloist.  This led to the great violinist Sarasate describing Brahms’s concerto as ‘too symphonic’, which meant it was not a showpiece for the violinist.  However, critics of the time, especially Brahms’s mentor Robert Schumann, had begun criticising works in the latter category.

As a performer on the piano rather than the violin, Brahms needed the advice of his friend, the great violinist Joseph Joachim, on technical aspects of this work, and also, since the latter Hungarian, on the gypsy idioms of the last movement.

The piece certainly has a symphonic idiom, and while opening in the major key, the soloists enters in the minor, and instead of his leading the major theme, the orchestra does it.  The cadenza that Joachim wrote for his performance of the concerto emerges seamlessly from the music it follows, and is the one most often used.

The young violin soloist, Mikhail Ovrutsky, is not one for the traditional ‘penguin’ suit; he wore a dark patterned loose shirt, open at the neck.  He was equal to the task at hand, though I found his ungainly stance on stage inelegant and off-putting.  While his tone was mostly beautiful, it was not always smooth from note to note, i.e. from up-bow to down-bow, and was even harsh occasionally.  At other times he displayed sweetness of tone, but at some of these moments, the orchestra threatened to overwhelm him.  At other times there was, for me, too much metallic string sound from him.  Joachim’s cadenza was fast and vigorous – but was it beautiful?

In the main, the orchestra was in splendid form, mellow and sensitive.  However, they were not quite together at the start of the slow movement.  The divine oboe solo was a little too assertive for my taste, though the tone was lovely, and the harmonising woodwinds were very fine, the melancholic sound thus created, haunting.

The violin solo then entered noticeably softer, and Ovrutsky employed more vibrato than previously, giving greater breadth of tone, appropriate for this movement.  Here, the solo playing was magical, and the mournful ending very refined.

For me, the huge change of mood in the final movement has always been rather hard to take – it is too much of a contrast with what has preceded it.  Again there was some harshness of tone in what was generally a very good performance.  There is certainly nothing wrong with Ovrutsky’s finger technique.

As the programme note stated “…the music never becomes an exercise in extraordinary virtuosity but is instead imbued with a passion that drives the music towards an exciting, breathtaking finish.”

The third offering, Brahms’s Symphony no. 2, features a grand, sweeping opening, counterpointed with delicate figures it.  The orchestra provided gorgeous string tone.  The first movement is mainly bold and brassy, but not without introspection too.  Towards the end of the movement there was some fine horn playing.

The second movement is more contemplative – a mixture of fibre and cream.  As has been said, Brahms makes the most of the material he has.

The third movement opens with a resplendent oboe theme, against pizzicato strings.  The full-bodied sound from the orchestra nevertheless allowed for nuance aplenty.  The exuberant clarinet and oboe both featured elegantly in the finale.  The strings introduced on of Brahms’s bold, sturdy themes; it developed excitedly.  Chromaticism followed (but not as in Wagner), and there was a great final statement of the main theme, noble and heroic.  Brahms seemed to get a little bogged down in this movement, with a tad too much working out of the themes.  However, the textures were always wonderful.

The orchestra looked as if it had successfully complete a marathon – which it will have by late Saturday afternoon.  As the audience gave the orchestra an enthusiastic response, the guest principal horn player. Samuel Jacobs, was raised for a special round of applause.

The splendour of this concert was a fitting tribute to Chris Doig, on the day of his untimely death – a man who contributed much to this orchestra as a consultant, and to many cultural and sporting bodies in New Zealand.